My name is Charlotte, and I was named for the dessert charlotte au chocolat, which used to be the signature dessert of the restaurant.
When I was a child, charlottes — French desserts made traditionally out of brioche, ladyfingers, or sponge and baked in a charlotte mold — were everywhere. Charlotte au chocolat wasn't the only variety, though being chocolate, it had the edge on my mother's autumn-season apple charlotte braised with brioche and poached in clarified butter, and even on the magnificent charlotte Malakoff she used to serve in the summer: raspberries, slivered almonds, and Grand Marnier in valleys of vanilla custard.
But it is charlotte au chocolat, being my namesake dessert, that I remember most, for we offered it on the menu all year long. I walked into the pastry station and saw them cooling in their rusted tin molds on the counter. I saw them scooped onto lace doilies and smothered in Chantilly cream, starred with candied violets and sprigs of wet mint. I saw them lit by birthday candles. I saw them arranged, by the dozens, on silver trays for private parties. I saw them on customers' plates, destroyed, the Chantilly cream like a tumbled snowbank streaked with soot from the chocolate.
And charlottes smelled delightful: they smelled richer, I thought, than any dessert in the world. The smell made me think of black velvet holiday dresses and grown-up perfumes in crystal flasks. It made me want to collapse and never eat again.
I was also scared of charlottes, scared that someday I might become one. One of the line cooks once said to me, "One of these nights when we run out of charlottes, we're going to plop you on a plate and top you in whipped cream. Oh, the customers won't mind. I hear that little girls taste yummy."
I believed him. I even believed that I would fit on a plate. In those days, I seemed that small, and the rest of the world that big.
My parents first laid eyes on the dining room of the Hasty Pudding Club when my mother was pregnant with me. Their good friend and future business partner Mary-Catherine Deibel was with them, too, that day. The three of them were shocked to discover that the undergraduates had trashed the beautiful old-world room with the hunter green walls and the domed, forty-foot ceilings that were majestic even by Harvard standards. Cleaning it up before opening for business, not long after I was born, they uncovered soiled toothpicks, bow ties, and garters. A hardened creamy pink substance — my father said it must have come from strawberry daiquiris — crusted the green velvet carpet that always smelled, even after being vacuumed, of a vague Ivy League potpourri of brandy and mothballs and after-dinner cigars.
The Hasty Pudding Club, founded in 1770, is the oldest student society at Harvard. In 1982 when my parents opened their restaurant, which they named Upstairs at the Pudding, the Club still owned the building at 10 Holyoke Street, right across from the gates of Harvard Yard. But they already were having financial problems, a sign of things to come. They agreed to rent space to a tenant because they needed the income, and converting the top floor of the building into a fine restaurant was a genteel solution to their financial woes.
The restaurant, then, was that rare place where the exclusive Harvard "final clubs" and the public met. The magnificent space still retained the private air of a club, but the door to the building was open to all; anybody could walk upstairs and dine there. From the beginning, the restaurant was a favorite with Harvard professors and presidents. It was the kind of restaurant where undergraduates, used to eating at
The Tasty and Pinocchio's, could count on their parents taking them for steak dinners. It did a fabulous business for Harvard — as well as MIT — graduation. Boston was still a baked-beans-and-broiled-scrod kind of town then, and fashionable restaurants offering the kind of imaginative, artisanal cuisine we take for granted today were few and far between. In an article in The Boston Globe years later, a regular customer of the Pudding's described it as "the Ritz of Cambridge" — a phrase befitting its festive place in the community.
The building consisted of three stately floors: on the first, the Members' Lounge and the Hasty Pudding Theatre; on the second, the Club Bar; and on the third, the dining room and kitchen of the restaurant. As in an English country house, the layout contained an elaborate social choreography, an "upstairs-downstairs" feeling, though in this case the people downstairs had all the power.
A review in The Boston Globe once described the experience of dining at the Pudding as "stepping into the third installment of Brideshead Revisited." The comment was not far off, and indeed, the Halloween I was nine years old I went trick-or-treating as Sebastian's youngest sister, Cordelia Flyte, in a rust-colored taffeta party dress and with stiff black velvet bows wound round my pigtails. This was not at all that different from the way I dressed the rest of the year.
The Pudding, in any event, was of another era and in the shabby high-prep style. Hanging on the wall above the sofa outside the Club Bar was a dusty gold plaque reading From the Pudding to the Presidency, and below that were photographs of all the U.S. presidents who had belonged to the Club: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. Some of the framed theatrical posters of old Hasty Pudding shows dated back to the eighteenth century. The all-male Harvard a cappella group the Krokodiloes practiced in the Members' Lounge, and at any hour of the day the sounds of young male voices chirping the lyrics to show tunes could be heard soaring to those magical domed ceilings.
From Charlotte au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood by Charlotte Silver. Copyright 2012 by Charlotte Silver. Excerpted by permission of Riverheard Books.